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Story and live photo by Andy Argyrakis
Sondre Lerche sounds off
Livewire's one on one
June 17, 2007
The somewhat serene, spread out surroundings of Norway- Sondre Lerche's homeland- are in quite significant contrast to the phone call setting of this particular conversation (his recently acquired New York City apartment). For starters, it's apparent there's plenty of hustle and bustle in the background, plus the singer-songwriter appears slightly out of breath for the first few minutes. And that he should, especially since it's his first day back in America after visiting family and friends and he's in the transitioning stage from vacation unpacking to album promoting.
"Yeah it's pretty different, first of all because New York has a lot of people crammed into one very tiny area whereas Norway is a pretty big country with four and a half million people spread out," he says in an inviting accent, breaking the ice with a quick contrast before addressing more pressing matters. "My wife studies here and I travel so much that basically I can be anywhere, but I have noticed the apartments are a lot smaller here."
If all goes according to plan with the tunesmith's latest project Phantom Punch (Astralwerks), chances are he'll be moving on up to a much larger high rise or into a house all his own. So far odds seem to point in the twenty-four-year-old's direction given a rapid grassroots fan base that's fledging overseas, not to mention the American underground. It's a platform Lerche's steadily built up since debuting as a mere teenager in 2002 with Faces Down and has carefully cultivated across 2004's Two Way Monologue and last year's Duper Sessions.
"On the first two records, I was very keen on making the songs as elaborate and as full of ideas and arrangements as possible," he asserts. "They were full of a lot of color, strings and production. When we set out for Duper Sessions, I had already decided to make Phantom Punch [in America], but had to wait due to scheduling reasons. So I got together with my band [The Faces Down] at home in Norway and we tried to make really short and concise songs, which carried into this record. They're stylistically different, but both records are about getting just a few musicians together and trying to make a lean sound." Much of that new found, minimalist inspiration came from touring with English rock legend Elvis Costello, one of Lerche's all time favorite artists. At first, the opportunity was nerve wrecking for the relative newcomer, especially because Costello's fan base was split between those who were open minded versus the freakishly dedicated only interested in the headliner. "Some nights it was really fun and others were harder because you had a feeling they just wanted to see Elvis, and you can't really blame them for that!," he offers with a laugh. "But the tour really helped inspire me to make a record with my band that was really physical and restless where you could feel the energy of four people in a room. I went back and listened to a lot of his earlier records, and some later ones, along with early XTC and a lot of early 80s British pop."
Those influences are clearly apparent come the gutsy grinds of "The Tape" and "Face the Blood," along with the sweeping melodies of "Well Well Well," "She's Fantastic" and "Say It All." But just when it looks like listeners could crack Lerche's code, he throws them for some pretty serious and unexpected loops, including his love for Brazilian music and Burt Bacharach (think his hipper "Austin Powers" phase as opposed to Dionne Warwick era).
"When I first took guitar lessons [at age eight], I learned a lot of Brazilian standards," he recalls. "That was my first exposure, but the interest has stayed with me and I've went on to discover a lot of other different artists and their takes. I'm a huge fan of Burt Bacharach, which makes a lot of sense because his main inspiration was Brazilian music."
Don't expect any all out loungers, but there are still several instances of cocktail sipping snapshots, such as the slithering "Phantom Punch," the bossa nova bounce of "John, Let Me Go" and the unplugged easiness of "After All." "We went for two-and-a half-minute pop songs with Brazilian harmonies, but played like punk songs," he continues. "The rhythmic patterns may follow the Brazilian or bossa nova style, but with a really restless, aggressive approach."
Lyrically Lerche is a bit more of an enigma, relying on a series of sweetly sung but non-specific subject matter open to each individual's interpretation. The closest he comes to being obvious is the self-explanatory finale "Happy Birthday Girl," though from there it's a toss up based on mood, location and state of mind.
"This is definitely a record with the most variations in topics and perspectives," he confirms. "I sort of tried to combine the more absurd and abstract writings with saying things the way they appear. There are a couple really romantic, melancholic numbers and a couple more that I wouldn't call bitter, but maybe possessed more aggressive lyrics then I've ever accounted for. It's always difficult to say exactly what a song's about because people respond so differently. I hear so much when people interpret my lyrics that interests and amuses me. I've sort of already explained as much as I'd like in the words themselves that maybe it's best to leave the rest unsaid."
While the thematic and sonic amalgamation is adventurous and sure to strike a chord with indie appreciators, an all out mainstream appeal may be further fetched. However, Lerche's clearly uninterested about breaking through to major degrees and actually admits that type of rocket ride will probably never happen.
"I'm one of those artists who tries to make really good records, and of course, go out and play," he affirms. "Meeting audiences is sort of the way I've gotten things done, which doesn't have to be a huge thing, but say a thousand really interested fans here in New York. People like Justin Timberlake have other methods to introduce their music to people- the whole celebrity factor- but with me, this is the way I have to do it...I'm very happy with all my records and I haven't made one I don't like so far, so I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope I won't have to in the future! As long as I can make records I'm really proud of, I couldn't be happier."